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Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Using the Onyx Boox Note 3 to manage the workflow process

The Onyx Boox Note 3 is a versatile note-taking e-reader. An important feature is using the Note 3 to manage the workflow between it and other devices (the ideas below also apply to other Onyx Boox e-readers). To make the most of the feature - considering the process is not user-friendly - below are some tips on syncing content between devices:

Notebooks

It is easier to sync notebooks on the Note 3, as the feature is built-in in the native software. At the top of the screen is an icon that enables the syncing of notebooks to the Onyx Boox cloud (it is also possible to sync to One Note, Dropbox and Evernote after setting up these accounts in settings). Using Android, the Boox Assistant app allows access to notebooks created and synced on Note 3. On a PC/Mac, notebooks are accessible through push.boox.com. Further, push.boox.com enables the pushing of documents to Note 3 wirelessly from an external device. 

PDF documents

Syncing PDF documents to another device is more challenging due to the absence of in-built cloud sync support. However, working between devices is workable as Neo-Reader saves highlights, typed notes and written notes into a PDF document. As a result, changes made in a PDF document can be accessed in another PDF reader, e.g. Xodo Reader. 

An intermediary is necessary to access a PDF document on an external device that has been changed using Note 3. I found two ways to enable working between the Note 3 and an external device: (1) Folder Sync Pro (there are other options); (2) Sharing a file through a third-party file manager. 

Folder Sync Pro is an Android application that makes it possible to establish two-way syncs between Note 3 and a cloud drive (cloud drives supported include, for example, Dropbox, Google Drive and Box). Thus, the user can, for example, install Google Drive cloud sync on a PC and have all changes in a PDF document synced. To continue working on the PDF document using a PC, Xodo Docs, or Adobe Acrobat PDF Reader can open the document changed using Neo-Reader. 

Another option is to install an Android file manager app with the file-sharing feature supported (I use File Manager Plus). Once an app is installed, a PDF document can be wirelessly sent to a cloud drive or an email. 

Of course, it would be a good idea if Onyx Boox Note updates the native software to establish a cloud sync service for PDF documents like the native notebook app.  

E-Books

The syncing of e-books is more difficult. Neo-Reader does not sync reading location, highlights and notes to the cloud. Further, as Onyx Boox does not allow the option to install Neo-Reader as an app on another device, everything remains local. The best that can be done is exporting notes and highlights to another device from Note 3. Neo-Reader can create a text file of exported highlights and notes - the text file, after being generated, can then be exported to the cloud or to the local note directory (the local note folder can also be synced to a cloud service using Folder Sync Pro).

In my view, the best option is to use Moon+ Reader Pro as it syncs reading location, highlights and annotations to Google Drive or Dropbox. Thus, it is possible to read an e-book on the Note 3 and continue on another Android or Chromebook device. 

Kindle works relatively well too. The Kindle app and e-readers sync personal documents, making it a good cross-platform option. One negative is that it needs some tweaking using the third-party app optimisation settings. However, even with tweaks, Moon+ Reader Pro is better optimised to work on an Android e-reader. If you are an Android/Chromebook user than it makes sense to use Moon+ Reader Pro.

It is possible to use the Google Play Books app that potentially provides more versatility as it can be used on a Mac, iPad, PC, Android and Chromebook. The biggest problem with Google Books is its unsuitability due to the menus and text rendering slowly and poorly on an E-Ink e-reader.  

Friday, 29 January 2021

The a-symmetrical e-reader before the Kindle Oasis

The first generation Kindle Oasis is often credited as being the starting point of a-symmetrical e-readers. To differing degrees, Kobo, reMarkable and Onyx Boox later followed the path and produced their versions. 

The Rocketbook eBook
In reality, the first a-symmetrical e-reader - released in 1998 - was the NuvoMedia Rocket eBook. The Rocket eBook had a 'transflective' LCD screen and 4MB storage that could store up to 10 e-books. A Rocketbook eBook Pro version was later released with a larger 16MB storage. A similarly designed e-reader - eBookwise 1150 - was released in 2004 by Fictionwise. In 2011 another LCD e-reader was released - the Ectaco Jetbook Mini.

Technically, the earliest a-symmetrical E-Ink e-reader was the Sony Librie (released in 2004), with physical page turn buttons on the wider left side. 

Pocketbook released its first a-symmetrical e-reader in 2010 - the Pocketbook 360 (the Pocketbook 360 had a smaller 5" E-Ink Vizplex 600x800 screen). A later iteration with improved specifications - the PocketBook 360 Plus - was released in 2011.

Continuing the trend, Pocketbook released the 8-inches InkPad 840 in 2014 - it was designed to be held on the wider right side to turn pages (the InkPad 840 was updated in 2016). Before the InkPad 840, Pocketbook also released the PocketBook Colour Lux (801) in 2013 with a similar design (it had an 8-inches Triton E-Ink screen). Amazon released the first Kindle Oasis - the only generation with a 6-inches screen - in 2016.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Mobius or Carta?

According to Kobo, the Forma has an E-Ink Carta screen. At the same time, it also marketed as a durable e-reader with E-ink's Mobius technology. This raises the question: Is the display Carta or Mobius? The answer is both. E-Ink Carta is an FPL (Front Panel Laminate) with either a glass or plastic substrate. Specifically, Mobius technology points to the plastic-based substrate within the display. Instead of a glass-based layer, the plastic one is more flexible, lighter and capable of withstanding greater pressure. As the Mobius substrate is more rugged, it is suitable for larger e-readers due to the greater screen estate. 

Other than the plastic-based layer, devices like the Onyx Boox Note 3 also have a glass layer on the display. In the case of the Note 3, this means writing with a hard tip stylus does not scratch the screen. Screen scratching with stylus input was a problem with the Onyx Boox Note and Max 2 - both released in 2018 - due to the absence of a glass front layer. 

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

First TCL NXTPAPER tablet announced

It appears TCL NXTPAPER has moved from speculative prototype to a real-world product. TCL announced the release of an 8.88-inches tablet that it initially announced in September 2020. The tablet has 1440 x 1080 pixels and a 60Hz refresh rate. Based on TCL marketing, this means, other than reading, the ability to stream multimedia content.

Oddly, TCL state the NXTPAPER tablet supports adaptive brightness:

Move seamlessly between bright light and dark light with TCL NXTPAPER. Automatic adaptive brightness detects the ambient light of your environment and adjusts brightness and colour temperature accordingly for the best viewing.

Considering the TCL NXTPAPER has a transflective display with no backlight, it is unclear why adaptive brightness is advertised. Could the NXTPAPER - similar to an E-Ink e-reader - come with a front light? 

On the positive side, TCL state the NXTPAPER will support stylus input. However, it is not known what technology the TCL T-Pen supports. 

TCL also does not make the estimated battery life clear. Other than stating the battery capacity to be 5500mAh, it is not known what this means in estimated battery time considering the display technology’s novelty. The tablet will be released in April 2021, so more will be known later.

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Onyx Boox Note 3 review: A functional device that delivers as an e-reader and digital notepad

I don’t think there is a 10.3-inches note-taking e-reader better than the Note 3. The device has its negatives, but none are serious flaws considering its use-cases. For example, reMarkable excels as a digital note-taking notepad, but its under-whelming e-reading software makes it unusable as an e-reader. The Onyx Boox Note 3 doesn’t have the well-thought-out product design of the reMarkable, but in terms of functionally, it cannot be surpassed.

Front-light, screen and performance

The screen has not changed - it is the same Mobius Carta display that Onyx Boox has included in its Note range before. Thus, we have the same 227 PPI - a negative, considering the Note 3 is priced as a premium device. Nevertheless, the resolution is sharp enough and acceptable.

Compared to other larger note-taking e-readers, the Note 3 does come with a front light (some note-taking e-readers still don’t have front lights - e.g., the reMarkable and Supernote A5X). The front light - impressive considering the size of the Note 3 - is the best I’ve seen on any e-reader. It is uniform and with little shadowing. There is also the option to change and mix colours for warmer lighting.

The Note 3’s Snapdragon 636 processor is found in affordable smartphones, e.g. Moto G7. Considering the uses of an e-reader, the 636 takes performance to another level, comfortably handling large PDF documents. The smartphone and tablet level processor is unnecessary for an e-reader, but the performance boost is a bonus.

Battery life

I’ve tried different Android e-readers, and they all had sub-par battery life (battery life lasted days rather than ten days, or more you get with other e-readers). The Note 3 has a large 4,300 mAh battery capacity; it seems Onyx Boox tweaked the system settings to conserve and maximise battery life. The large capacity and tweaks mean battery life is comparable to the Kindle Paperwhite. Further, in standby-mode, there is minimal drainage.

Battery life is particularly impressive when note-taking. When I turned off the front light and WiFi, the battery drained only 2-3% during an hour of extensive writing. 

The Onyx Boox Note Air, with its significantly smaller battery capacity,  gets a few days of regular usage. In comparison to the Note Air, the superior battery life of the Note 3 makes it the better option in the long run.

Note-taking 

The note-taking experience is a weakness. The screen itself is smooth, and the pen input feel is closer to writing on a tablet. In comparison, reMarkable better replicates the feel of pen on paper.

Whether writing or sketching it takes a second to render the input - this is not a significant problem when note-taking but those that wish to use the Note 3 as a sketchpad might find the cumulative effect of the delay frustrating. The included pen is a generic stylus that Boyue also uses - it is thin and slippery, making it uncomfortable to hold during extended writing sessions.

While the note-taking dimension of the Onyx Note 3, mainly due to the hardware, is a weakness, it is not a significant flaw. The software is capable and supports different pens, line width, layers, templates, typed text input, and various colours (as the screen is monochrome the colours will only appear when exported and viewed on, for example, a laptop). The Note 3 also supports the syncing of notepads via the Boox cloud.

E-Reading software

Another negative is the e-reading software. Neo-Reader renders ebooks well - both ePub and Mobi - and supports advanced features like incremental adjustment of line, margins and paragraph spacing. Other features include image/text contrast adjustment, sideloading of fonts and even the possibility to input writing with the included stylus. Overall, there is a lot to like about Neo-Reader’s ebook support, but the software needs polishing. Below is a list of case points that demonstrate the problem:

  • Instead of just including the typeface name, a list of font styles is listed. Further, instead of a curated selection of preloaded fonts - as you get with Kobo and Kindle e-readers - the user gets a dump of Android system fonts in one long, confusing list. I believe the problem is that Neo-Reader is an Android app that is built into Boox’s custom interface. It is not designed from ground-up like other non-Android e-readers.   
  • Font size options, similar to Kobo, are controlled with a slider. Like Kobo, control is restricted due to the disproportionate increase in size at each slider point. Neo-Reader allows the user to pinch-to-zoom to change the font size, but it is finicky to use, and the differences in size are still too large. 
  • Neo-Reader often misses swipe gestures to turn pages. There is no issue with the touch to turn page feature. 
  • Neo-Reader supports stylus input in e-books. However, the feature is not implemented well due to the dynamic nature of e-books. For example, a written note loses its place or overlays text when there are any formatting changes. 

To improve the e-reading experience, it could be a better idea to minimise and polish the e-book reader software. For example, the careful curation of fonts means they can be adapted and optimised for E-Ink. It also means, as fonts are pre-selected, differences in font scaling and spacing can be made more uniform.

PDF support is unsurpassed  

Neo-Reader’s PDF support is excellent. No vendor comes close to what Onyx Boox offers. What Onyx Boox does well is stability, e.g. pinch-to-zoom is often implemented poorly on E-Ink devices; in the case of the Note 3, it is smooth and refreshes after setting the zoom level. Similarly, moving border lines for cropping isn’t frustratingly tricky as is the case with Boyue’s software and KOReader. Below are some features that are worthy of highlighting as they demonstrate the versatility of Neo-Reader in how it caters for a variety of PDF documents:

  • Different modes of navigation are supported. In comic and article mode, it is possible to split the page in four ways.  Specifically useful is a further setting that makes it possible to navigate a document with two pages scanned on one side. Considering the 10.3-inches screen, these scanned pages are challenging to read, so splitting navigation into two columns means each page can be cropped separately and navigated in ascending order.
  • There are different options to darken text and images in PDF documents. If the document is scanned, then the text is not recognised, making image contrast adjustment the way to darken text. If the PDF document is text-based, it is also possible to add weight to the text by an emboldening option.
  • It is possible to split the screen to view two documents side-by-side, take notes while reading and auto-translate passages. The problem with this feature - something that can be remedied in an update - is the inability to adjust the size of each task opened in split view mode. It would be useful to utilise, for example, greater screen estate for a PDF document, to allow text to appear larger when note-taking.

While there are a lot of features baked into the PDF software, the designed interface is convoluted. For example, there are two menus to access cropping. First, it is found under ‘display’ - though technically the options should be labelled zoom-to-width and zoom-to-page - and at the bottom via 'navigation' through ‘more settings’ (see below). Further, under ‘display’, zooming a specific area of the page is possible through what is essentially cropping. 

Crop is available under 'display'. Cropping here should be 'zoom-to-page' and 'zoom-to-width'.

The cropping function is also available through 'more settings' via the 'navigation' menu.

Android app functionality

Onyx Boox highlights the ability to install third-party applications and access the Google Play Store. It is not the closed Android experience that you get with Supernote and Barnes & Noble Nook e-readers. As most apps are not designed for E-Ink, the Note 3 has tweaks that make some apps more accessible. Tweaks include, accessed after long-pressing an app, the ability to adjust contrast, bolden text and set refresh frequency. 

Neo-Reader and the note-taking software meets most needs, so third-party applications don’t fill gaps regarding e-reading software (a problem with Boyue e-readers). Nevertheless, it is useful to install Kindle, Moon+ Reader and Pocket. Moon+ Reader is one of the few apps that add value to the e-reading experience, as it makes it possible to sync ebooks between devices via Dropbox or Google Drive.

Miscellaneous

In this section, I want to cover some helpful miscellaneous features that Note 3 supports: 

  • The wireless transfer of books and Push Read: Instead of sideloading books, Note 3 supports the wireless transfer of documents and web content. WiFi transfer is supported through a designated web address or scanning using QR code. Another option is to use Push Read - a feature accessed via push.boox.com or the Boox Assistant app. Push Read allows the transfer of documents and the syncing of notes in one location (the Boox cloud). 
  • Refresh modes: There are four refresh modes available: normal, speed, A2 and X modes. The difference between these different modes is in the ghosting level. An e-book, for example, works best in normal or regal mode. On the other hand, to speed-up browsing a website, speed mode is the better option. While adding refresh modes is useful, the ghosting level in speed, A2 and X modes significantly affect the readability and user experience. Again, the feature is a helpful bonus introduced to partially remedy the E-Ink display’s inherent limitations when using third-party applications.
  • Split screen: The split screen is a feature that has a lot of potentials. It allows the user to multi-task, making it possible to open two apps at once, take notes while reading or set two documents next to each other. A problem with split-screen mode, as noted above, is the lack of the option to set the screen size ratio of each task.

Nevertheless, some features need some work. Onyx Boox’s pre-installed browser (Neo-Browser) is not adequately developed to work on an E-Ink device. Other than the option to bold text, additional choices need to be designed to manipulate the content’s appearance. For example, there is the option to set refresh frequency, but it does not work well as it is intended for e-reading rather than browsing the web. 

Another area that needs more work is developing apps, so the user doesn’t rely on third-party choices designed for tablets and smartphones. A word processing app, designed explicitly for E-Ink, with built-in syncing, is one app that would add value.

Conclusion

The Onyx Boox Note 3 is the most functional 10.3-inches note-taking e-reader currently available. Boyue’s options are let down by buggy software, and reMarkable e-reading software hinders its use for anything other than note-taking and sketching. While there are negatives, the Note 3, with its powerful processor and stable software, means it is the closest note-taking e-reader that delivers as both an e-reader and a digital notepad.  Further improvements, like polishing the e-book software and a suite of purpose-built E-Ink apps would push the Note 3 to another level.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Note-taking e-readers

Recently there has been a trend to market larger note-taking e-readers as tablets. I wish to look at the cases of reMarkable and Onyx Boox. The former designates their devices as 'paper tablets' and the latter as E-Ink Android tablets. In the case of reMarkable, the designation of 'paper tablet' is accurate, as both reMarkable 1 and 2 focus on digital writing and sketching. On the other hand, Onyx Boox devices excel as e-readers but fail as Android tablets. 

A 'paper tablet' that could be much more

reMarkable want to control the user experience from the bottom-up by developing both hardware and software for note-taking. In their words, the focus is on working on paper in the digital age, and so they make 'paper tablets'. The focus on the 'paper tablet' experience relegates e-reading to secondary status - something that shows with reMarkable's software. As a result, reMarkable unnecessarily restrict their devices and do not make the most of E-Ink's strengths. The problem is not E-Ink technology - a technology that was first designed for digital reading - but reMarkable's self-imposed niche of selling 'paper tablets'. While E-Ink is the best medium to reproduce the paper experience in the digital age, e-reading is a more critical dimension of the technology that is neglected due to the noted focus on producing a digital notepad.

E-Ink Android tablets 

Onyx Boox takes another route. For them, the tablet designation refers to the multi-functionality that Android brings. Hence, they emphasise that the user can not only do the tasks that E-Ink is meant for - i.e., reading and writing – but can also install third-party applications and customise the user experience. Through the E-Ink tablets marketing, Onyx Boox can then justify continuous upgrades - e.g., Android version updates, processing power and memory - even if they make little difference to the e-reading and digital note-taking user experience. 

We haven't seen significant upgrades in E-Ink technology and the hardware upgrades introduced by Onyx Boox are mostly superfluous. Accordingly, the following question can be asked: Does Android make a significant difference in a practical sense? The answer must be negative. Most Android apps are close to unusable on E-Ink and the apps that do work well only generate secondary value. In reality, what makes Onyx Boox devices attractive, in comparison to others, is the excellent and stable e-reading software. It is better to designate Onyx Boox devices as note-taking e-readers, rather than E-Ink Android tablets, as it encapsulates its strengths. Further, these strengths do not need Android.

Note-taking e-readers

As a result, the manner devices are marketed by vendors makes a difference in how they produced. The idea of a 'paper tablet' leads to a restricted device that fails as an e-reader and does not make the most of E-Ink's strengths. On the other side, Onyx Boox seeks to market its devices as E-Ink Android tablets to justify even more hardware upgrades and newer devices. Yet, the devices produced by Onyx Boox fail as Android tablets but excel as e-readers. It may be a better idea if vendors marketed their devices as note-taking e-readers - this way, they can focus on maximising what E-Ink does best.

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Review of the Staedtler Noris digital jumbo

Onyx Boox Note 3's original stylus (top) compared to the Staedtler Noris digital jumbo (bottom).

Staedtler sells two EMR-based styluses: the Noris digital classic and the Noris digital jumbo. I've been using the digital jumbo with the Onyx Boox Note 3 and below are my impressions:

  • In comparison to the Onyx Boox Note 3's included stylus, the Noris digital jumbo is an improvement. The nib is smoother and more precise. The eraser tip generates more friction that mimics the feel of a real pencil rubber. Holding the stylus is also more comfortable due to its thickness and non-slip surface - features that make a big difference for long writing sessions.
  • The material used and product design of the digital jumbo could be better - it is made from WOPEX (a wood-based material according to Staedtler). I've only used the stylus for a few days, and it already has several scratches. The eraser tip appears to be glued on, rather than being part of one uniform build.  I haven't used the LAMY AL-Star EMR Stylus, but judging from online reviews, it seems to have the superior build quality and feels like a premium pen. The LAMY AL-Star costs slightly more, so it might be worth considering.

I like the Noris digital jumbo. It is comfortable to hold, precise, and the rubber feeling eraser is a nice touch. The only issue is build quality. I understand Staedtler wanted to make the stylus feel like a real pencil, but more thought could have gone into striking a balance, so the stylus is more robust for long term use.